A Student’s Perspective: What the hell is transmedia?

Donovan X. Ramsey is a student at Columbia’s School of Journalism and one of ten students providing on the ground coverage of SMWNYC.

What the hell is transmedia? It was certainly the question on my mind. Having been trained as a print journalist, I considered it a feather in my cap to have digital media skills. In fact, I was live tweeting the “Collaborative Storytelling” panel as a part of New York’s Social Media Week. Twitter is something journalists are just starting to really understand. Now this? So there I was, and iPad in my lap for note taking, my digital camera around my neck and cell phone in hand for tweeting. Was I creating in transmedia? The panelists would attempt an answer.

The panel was lively, made possible in part by gag slides displayed behind the speakers. It included Lina Srivastava, Mark Harris, Brian Clark and Aina Abiodun, who served as moderator. The diverse group was often funny and consistently thoughtful.

Srivastava studied law at New York University and now runs Lina Srivastava Consulting, where she promotes transmedia activism. She also makes documentaries like “Born into Brothels” and “The Devil Came on Horseback.” Mark Harris makes films too and unlike the other panelists he might be considered something of a techie. Harris develops software to “facilitate transmedia experiences.” Brian Clark is the CEO of GMD Studios, a company I deduce is an ad agency that works across platforms. He calls himself an “experience designer.” Our moderator, Aina Abiodun, said she stumbled into transmedia while working on a film. She is yet another filmmaker that has expanded the reach of her work through the elusive “transmedia.”

In an interview with Ad Geek in 2011, Abiodun defined transmedia as “a style of storytelling in which one core narrative idea sprouts many rich, new story tentacles across media platforms.” The discussion kicked off with each panelist’s individual definition of the term. This led to the first tangible revelation surrounding transmedia: no one can agree on exactly what it is. There were words that came up regularly however. There was talk of storytelling, experiences and collaboration. 

Clark brought up the popular “It Gets Better” campaign as an example. “It Gets Better,” the series of videos across the Internet is certainly collaborative. Everyone from President Obama to average Youtube users has recorded themselves to share stories of adversity in youth with the underlying mission of preventing suicide in LGBT teenagers. Abiodun didn’t think that was transmedia. She argued that the medium was still practically the same: video.

Then Abiodun asked a question that was sure to raise some dander “Is the bible transmedia?” The panel bounced the idea around for a while. There is the story told by a cathedral for example and that of the text. There are sermons and stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes. Heck, there are even movies like “The Ten Commandments.” The debate fired up. Srivastava offered that transmedia can’t be accidental, there has to be some intention. Did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John intend on a multi-platform experience?

A slide appeared behind the speakers that read, “You’ve grown old and died at this panel.” I looked to my phone and saw tweets flooding in with the hashtag #smwtransmedia. The audience was uploading and sharing pictures of the slide, arguing about the concepts of transmedia while the panel did. One Twitter user wrote, “#smwtransmedia wondering if the slide experience is dependent on the conversation.”

If Srivastava, Harris, Clark and Abiodun couldn’t agree on a definition, they may have designed an experience toward one.